U.S. foes' nuclear ambitions -- past and present

Today, it's the nuclear ambitions of places like Iran and North Korea. In the late 1940s, America had the same worries about the Soviet Union. After 60 years, one thing remains unchanged: Americans are stuck with an abiding uncertainty over what's brewing on the nuclear front in distant lands that don't look too kindly on them. In "Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly," Michael D. Gordin, a professor of the history of science at Princeton University, explores the web of uncertainty that afflicted the United States in the 1940s and guided Soviet policy. His tale resonates in the current climate of nuclear uncertainty.

Guest Blogger: Michael D. Gordin

Sixty years ago, on August 29, 1949, at 7 a.m. local time, a mushroom cloud bloomed over the steppes of Soviet Kazakhstan. This was the ninth nuclear explosion on the earth's surface. Named First Lightning by the Soviets and later "Joe-1" -- in semi-ironic homage to Joseph Stalin -- it was also the first nuclear proliferation.

The event was not unexpected. Ever since the United States developed nuclear weapons, American politicians, soldiers, and scientists knew that eventually the Soviet Union would break the atomic monopoly.

This makes the history sound cut and dry: the Americans made a bomb, the Soviets made their own, and then the mnopoly ended. Sure, it was like that -- but it also wasn't.

The problem with thinking about the Soviet nuclear test as a fixed event -- single mushroom cloud over Semipalatinsk-21 -- that it obscures how much uncertainty shrouded that test beforehand, both for the Soviets and the Americans.

Let's start with the Soviet Union. From the discovery of nuclear fission in December 1938, the idea of making it into an explosive occurred to scientists all over the world, including Soviet ones. But Stalin did not authorize a full-scale crash program until August 1945. That month the Americans demonstrated that such a bomb could be made, what it could do, and that they would in fact use it (twice). The destruction of two Japanese cities cleared up several uncertainties.

There were others. Soviet spies had gathered material from the Manhattan Project that could massively help their scientists to produce a working nuclear device, if only that material could be trusted -- which it couldn't. Most of the spy data that made it to Moscow was incomplete, outdated, unsystematic, and might be deliberate misinformation. The Soviets devoted vast resources to compartmentalizing and double-checking all this material. But the only way to really be sure was to build a bomb and detonate it. Hence First Lightning.

For the Americans, the uncertainties cut deeper. They had no idea how much espionage had leaked, how much uranium the Soviets had, how hard they were working. They had to guess the monopoly's duration in order to formulate coherent policy without any good intelligence.

Stalin didn't help: he did not announce the Soviet test. American weather planes detected radioactivity on the winds from Siberia in September, but even that data was unreliable, and it took three weeks before President Harry Truman felt certain enough to announce the Soviet test himself.

The rest, as they say, is history: a bipolar nuclear Cold War.

The moral of the first Soviet proliferation is not how much of the bomb was derived from spy data, but rather how much the inevitable uncertainties shaped decisions. The American intelligence network is certainly more developed now, but the intrinsic problems of how to access remote entities (uranium deposits, the Qom plant in Iran, Kim-Jong Il's mind), and then how to interpret this data, are still with us. We have the same questions today -- history might help us formulate better answers.

By Steven E. Levingston |  January 11, 2010; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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